How to grow snowdrops

The Basics

EWG Snowdrops 23.2.12 (69) snowdrops showing bulb

Snowdrops grow from a bulb. They have a small white flower (almost always just one to a stem) and strappy green leaves. They grow to 4″-8″ high.

When you start growing snowdrops, the two forms you are most likely to come across are Galanthus nivalis (the single snowdrop – with just 3 interior petals) and Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’ (the double snowdrop -packed with interior petals.) If you see snowdrops flowering in January, with big leaves and flowers, they are probably a species called Galanthus elwesii.

EWG Snowdrops 23.2.12 (7) galanthus nivalis
Galanthus nivalis. The common snowdrop.
EWG Snowdrops 23.2.12 (18) growing snowdrops double snowdrop galanthus flore pleno
Galanthus nivalis f. floreplenus ‘Flore Pleno’. The double snowdrop

The majority of snowdrops flower in February. This is when you will see them in churchyards, on the side of the road or nestling under hedges. They have become semi-naturalised in the UK spreading out from gardens and even rubbish dumps (where a bulb has been thrown out.)

It’s worth considering growing snowdrops for their scent. In order to attract the few insects on the wing in February, the flowers need to send a very strong signal that they are here, so they are scented. The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, has a honey scent that is delicious on a sunny day; you can cut the flowers and put them in a posy vase to appreciate them in a warm house. We offer a beautifully wrapped bunch of these snowdrops in our online shop.

When and where to buy snowdrops

Traditionally you should order your bulbs ‘in the green’ for delivery in March. This means they arrive after the plant has flowered but while the leaves are still green.

Snowdrops by post

Mail order companies will deliver hundreds of the common varieties for amazing value or you can order just one bulb and pay hundreds of pounds.We sell a small range from the gardens in our online shop.

The RHS regional shows and specialist snowdrop events are excellent places to find and order unusual snowdrop bulbs.

Visit gardens in February, including those open just for snowdrops, where you will find a range of spring bulbs for sale. Wikipedia offers a good place to start looking for snowdrop gardens to visit.

EWG 18.2.16-6 (1) snowdrop visit to Easton Walled Gardens

Positioning your bulbs

Snowdrops will flower under hedges, in short grass, in containers and in flower beds. Anywhere not too dry and where the winter light catches them; they will flower. Think about where you have seen snowdrops growing in other gardens or in the countryside. This will give you an idea as to the kind of soil, aspect and other conditions that they need to grow. In a small garden, plant them under a twiggy shrub.

Looking after your snowdrops

Plant your snowdrops in good friable soil and add plenty of sand or grit to help with drainage if you garden on a clay (sticky) soil. Plant them deeply, allowing only the green part of the leaves to show above ground.

The leaves are important as they will be out from January to April and will gather energy from the sun to take back into the bulb for next year’s flowers. This means that, after flowering, you need to leave the leaves alone. They will wither and die back by May and the bulb will now just sit and do nothing until Autumn when the process starts again.

You can plant summer flowering perennials in the empty space; the bulbs won’t mind. They are very relaxed about the roots of other plants and may even grow through them in the spring.

Once you have one or two bulbs, they will start to form more bulbs underground. By lifting (ie digging up) the bulbs in the spring (after they have flowered but while the leaves are still green) and splitting them into individual bulbs and replanting separately, you will never have to buy another snowdrop!

Feeding and aftercare

If snowdrops are happy, very little care is needed. One of the best conditioners for the soil and your snowdrops is the leaf litter that falls from the trees above every year. In containers, you can imitate this by scraping off the top few centimetres and applying a new layer of compost.

easton walled gardens-17-2-13-6 growing snowdrops in containers

If your soil is hungry, you can help to boost your snowdrops’ performance by applying a slow release fertiliser in autumn and gently forking it in to the soil. Obviously, once the shoots appear this is much harder to do. Splitting the bulbs to prevent congestion will also improve the number of flowers in a clump.

Using snowdrops with other plants

Our garden is full of ideas for using snowdrops in containers or large drifts. See my blog post here on snowdrop planting combinations.

 

Planting combinations for snowdrops

Using Snowdrops.

Ursula Cholmeley talks you through planting combinations for snowdrops at Easton Walled Gardens and suggests ways to use late winter flowers in your garden.

Where to use Snowdrops.

Snowdrops are a wonder flower for your garden. They work in a landscape or on a ledge, making them fantastically versatile for large or tiny gardens. Undemanding and delicate, with a honey scent, they will flower before the rest of the garden even breaks from the ground. Just when you need the leaves to vanish, (maybe a nearby geranium is spreading out in the spring sunshine) they die back quickly and won’t bother you again until January. We are always experimenting with new ways to use these little flowers.

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Using Snowdrops in large spaces.

At Easton Walled Gardens, the delicate snowdrop has flourished since it was introduced. Some say the Romans brought them along the Great North Road, some say that the Tudor Cholmeleys planted them. No one really knows.

Whenever they were introduced, the slopes of the gardens are carpeted with small nodding flowers throughout February and into March. Across the valley, a bowl of white-washed green appears in the park. These are the snowdrops that were here when the re-discovery of the gardens began in 2000.  They prove that large scale plantings of a flower that grows no more than 15cm high can be highly effective.

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The smallest and the largest.

Although it is difficult to photograph, there is nothing more charming or evocative of nature’s power of invention than snowdrops around the skirts of a huge tree. Unlike a lens, our eyes notice movement in the branches and the wind passing over the nodding flowers below. We can see how a wintery light catches the edge of the tree canopy and the outline of 1,000 flowers, 5 metres below.

Snowdrops are almost ok just as sheets of white; but not quite. In our meadows, woodland walk and on the snowdrop bank, careful thought has gone into where and when we need to break into the snowdrops to provide contrast and an opportunity to draw the viewer in.

The Snowdrop Bank.

The effect here is natural. Hellebores, the obvious choice to combine with snowdrops (see later), are not planted here because their dominant colours would detract from the sheets of white. The interest comes from the landscape. The path winds through ash trees and the old course of the river is filled with water in winter. The reflection of snowdrops in the water adds to the scene.

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Easton Walled Gardens-10-2-16-25-snowdrop-bank

You can just make out some early daffodils on the water’s edge in this image – a pretty Narcissus called ‘Spring Dawn’; it is in flower by mid february. This isn’t always in its favour as heavy frosts or snow can lay it out for several days. It has pretty pale petals around a yellow trumpet and combines gently with the snowdrops. Further up the bank, Lonicera fragrantissima is a bare shrub that has small flowers of a similar pale yellow colour. They have an exceptionally sweet perfume. Like all wild gardens, scent and sound are as important as the visual scene.

The Cedar Meadow.

Here, naturalised snowdrops are scattered through grass between even larger trees. When we started work they had already been joined by aconites and the two combine beautifully, set off by the green turf.

Easton Walled Gardens img_4204-snowdrops-and-aconites

 

Aconites flower just before the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and the petals will hang on long enough to create a yellow and white patchwork effect. They can be established in large areas by scattering fresh seed where you want to see them and keeping the ground clear of brambles and nettles.

Early crocuses work well here too and we have spent some time experimenting with different varieties to find the ones that seem happiest and content to stay. (Not always a given in a meadow.) The ‘tommies’ or Crocus tommasinianus come in various shades of lilac through to deep purple. We use ‘Whitewell Purple’ and ‘Ruby Giant’ mixed with the original species. Order the corms in September and plant as soon as they arrive.

Easton Walled Gardens-23-2-16-41-crocus-tommasinianus

Usually by early March, Narcissus Tete-a-tete will be up and will provide a yellow foil for the snowdrops. The aconites are just green now with emerging star shaped seed pods replacing the flower.

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Snowdrops for borders and garden edges.

A winding path leads off the White Space Garden through the woodland walk and the shrubbery. Here the snowdrops are combined with perennials and spring bulbs to create impact closer to the viewer. In other words, it’s a lot more colourful and you can get in amongst it.

The combinations we use here would work well under shrubs, in a cottage garden setting and in the middle of herbaceous borders where the dying foliage will be covered late in the season.

Hellebores are natural companions, flowering from January to April. If you consider that a tulip may last 10 days if you are lucky, hellebores are remarkably valuable. Their sepals (the petals are tiny) retain colour when the seed pods form and only when they are really tatty do you need to cut them off. Rich deep colours and spotty, picotee or anemone flowered forms add to their allure.

easton walled gardens-27-2-13-21-snowdrops-and-hellebores

Swathes of colour can take a while to build up (hellebores like to settle in to give you decades of slowly increasing blooms) so it’s good to consider another common but often overlooked snowdrop ally – the arum. Flashes of silver on the leaves makes this a very sophisticated combination that is well worth seeking out.

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In the woodland walk, the main show is provided by Galanthus nivalis, the ‘common’ snowdrop and Galanthus Flore Pleno, a double form that spreads easily amongst the dog’s mercury and yellow aconites.

easton walled gardens-7-2-14-131-aconites-at-easton

On the edges are cyclamen coum, small early irises and a pulmonaria called ‘Redstart’ which is particularly good on alkaline soils like ours.

You can see them together with a hellebore in the picture below.

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Special beds and containers.

Snowdrops work in troughs and small beds, containers and pots. A snowdrop collection needs its own space and some permanent labels – beware the family strimmer getting busy in your precious space in high summer and beheading all your labels. Our alpine beds and troughs are home to about 10 varieties of snowdrop. Early elwesii forms such as Galanthus ‘Fred’s Giant’ (shown below) are usually the first up and they can be grown with little iris such as ‘Katherine Hodgkin’ or Iris reticulata ‘George.’

galanthus-freds-giant-at-easton-walled-gardens

Our cottage garden and secret garden have unusual snowdrops too. I particularly like the double yellow ‘Lady Elphinstone’ although she can be quite miffy; coming up green in some years.

If you are using containers, consider using foliage for background colour. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ is a classic but you can also use variegated sedges, as shown here.

easton walled gardens-17-2-13-6-snowdrops-in-containers

The young foliage of golden feverfew can be equally dynamic and we use this in a bed under the black walnut mixed with a large Galanthus nivalis form to great effect.

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Purely ornamental containers can have snowdrops housed temporarily in them. We dig up clumps just as they start into growth and move them into round terracotta pots – once they have flowered we lift them out, split the bulbs up and re-plant them in a quiet area of the garden.

 

Snowdrop Facts

Snowdrops at Easton Walled Gardens

10 interesting snowdrop facts

Snowdrops feature heavily at Easton Walled Gardens from late January until mid March. Around 3,000 people visit us to see the snowdrop display each year.

We get asked a lot of questions about our snowdrops and here are our top 10 favourite answers and facts:

When do snowdrops flower?

  • According to the old proverb: “The snowdrop in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas Day.” (2 February)

Snowdrops at Easton Walled Gardens

How many species and varieties of snowdrop are there?

  • There are 18-19 species of Snowdrops (Galanthus) and more than 500 named varieties.

What do ‘Galanthus’ and ‘Snowdrop’ mean?

  • The Species name Galanthus comes from the Greek: ‘Gala’ meaning milk and ‘Anthos’ meaning flower.
  • In the 19 century, a Dr. Prior wrote that the common name cannot mean snowdrop since ‘snow is a dry powdery substance that cannot form a drop.’ (Was he also a train spotter in his spare time?)
  • It is more likely the name comes from the pearl drop earrings worn by women in the 16th and 17th centuries, as in the painting ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’

snowdrops with water at Easton Walled Gardens

How to grow snowdrops

  • The best way to divide snowdrops is to lift a group every second year as the leaves start to yellow in late spring; split all the bulbs and then plant them separately with a pinch of bonemeal in the hole.
  • The flower is formed in the bulb the previous March and waits nearly a whole year before pushing through the soil.
  • On a sunny day, snowdrops are highly scented and give off a honey smell. If you have enough plants the perfume will fill the garden. Mix them with crocus, aconites and cyclamen coum for a colourful display.

Life saving properties

  • Snowdrops contain their own anti-freeze proteins. Snowdrop plants were harvested during the First World War to make anti-freeze for tanks.

Lady Elphinstone at Easton Walled Gardens

Collecting snowdrops

  • Snowdrop collectors and enthusiasts are called ‘Galanthophiles’ not to be confused with Snowdropping which is an entirely different type of fetish (apparently.)
  • Such is their enthusiasm that a single bulb Galanthus plicatus ‘Golden Fleece’ sold on ebay for £1,390 last year. The bulb had taken Joe Sharman 10 years to develop and was a record price for a snowdrop.

For more information on our open days please see our snowdrop pages on the main website.

Copyright Ursula Cholmeley.